Academic (Skeptical) PhilosophyJanuary 20, 2020
It may seem a very extravagant attempt of the sceptics to destroy reason by argument and ratiocination.
Yet is this the grand scope of all their enquiries and disputes.
They try to find objections, both to our abstract reasonings, and to those which regard matter of fact and existence.
The chief objection against all abstract reasonings comes from the ideas of space and time. Ideas might be very clear in common life and to a careless view. But when they are scrutinized by the profound sciences, they afford principles which seem absurd and contradictory.
The priestly dogma of the infinitive divisibility of space, with its consequences, are pompously displayed by all geometricians and metaphysicians, with triumph and exultation. This doctrine aimed to subdue the rebellious reason of mankind and shocked common sense the most.
A real quantity, infinitely less than any finite quantity, containing quantities infinitely less than itself, and so on in infinitum; this is an edifice so bold and prodigious, that it is too weighty for any pretended demonstration to support, because it shocks the clearest and most natural principles of human reason.32
But what renders the matter more extraordinary, is, that these seemingly absurd opinions are supported by a chain of reasoning, the clearest and most natural; nor is it possible for us to allow the premises without admitting the consequences. Nothing can be more convincing and satisfactory than all the conclusions concerning the properties of circles and triangles; and yet, when these are once received, how can we deny, that the angle of contact between a circle and its tangent is infinitely less than any rectilineal angle, that as you may increase the diameter of the circle in infinitum, this angle of contact becomes still less, even in infinitum, and that the angle of contact between other curves and their tangents may be infinitely less than those between any circle and its tangent, and so on, in infinitum?
The demonstration of these principles seems as unexceptionable as that which proves the three angles of a triangle to be equal to two right ones, though the latter opinion be natural and easy, and the former big with contradiction and absurdity. Reason here seems to be thrown into a kind of amazement and suspence, which, without the suggestions of any sceptic, gives her a diffidence of herself, and of the ground on which she treads. She sees a full light, which illuminates certain places; but that light borders upon the most profound darkness. And between these she is so dazzled and confounded, that she scarcely can pronounce with certainty and assurance concerning any one object.
- The absurdity of these bold determinations of the abstract sciences seems to become, if possible, still more palpable with regard to time than extension. An infinite number of real parts of time, passing in succession, and exhausted one after another, appears so evident a contradiction, that no man, one should think, whose judgement is not corrupted, instead of being improved, by the sciences, would ever be able to admit of it.
Yet still reason must remain restless, and unquiet, even with regard to that scepticism, to which she is driven by these seeming absurdities and contradictions. How any clear, distinct idea can contain circumstances, contradictory to itself, or to any other clear, distinct idea, is absolutely incomprehensible; and is, perhaps, as absurd as any proposition, which can be formed. So that nothing can be more sceptical, or more full of doubt and hesitation, than this scepticism itself, which arises from some of the paradoxical conclusions of geometry or the science of quantity.33
- The sceptical objections to moral evidence, or to the reasonings concerning matter of fact, are either popular or philosophical. The popular objections are derived from the natural weakness of human understanding; the contradictory opinions, which have been entertained in different ages and nations; the variations of our judgement in sickness and health, youth and old age, prosperity and adversity; the perpetual contradiction of each particular man’s opinions and sentiments; with many other topics of that kind. It is needless to insist farther on this head. These objections are but weak.
For as, in common life, we reason every moment concerning fact and existence, and cannot possibly subsist, without continually employing this species of argument, any popular objections, derived from thence, must be insufficient to destroy that evidence. The great subverter of Pyrrhonism or the excessive principles of scepticism is action, and employment, and the occupations of common life.
These principles may flourish and triumph in the schools; where it is, indeed, difficult, if not impossible, to refute them. But as soon as they leave the shade, and by the presence of the real objects, which actuate our passions and sentiments, are put in opposition to the more powerful principles of our nature, they vanish like smoke, and leave the most determined sceptic in the same condition as other mortals.
- The sceptic, therefore, had better keep within his proper sphere, and display those philosophical objections, which arise from more profound researches. Here he seems to have ample matter of triumph; while he justly insists, that all our evidence for any matter of fact, which lies beyond the testimony of sense or memory, is derived entirely from the relation of cause and effect; that we have no other idea of this relation than that of two objects, which have been frequently conjoined together; that we have no argument to convince us, that objects, which have, in our experience, been frequently conjoined, will likewise, in other instances, be conjoined in the same manner; and that nothing leads us to this inference but custom or a certain instinct of our nature; which it is indeed difficult to resist, but which, like other instincts, may be fallacious and deceitful.
While the sceptic insists upon these topics, he shows his force, or rather, indeed, his own and our weakness; and seems, for the time at least, to destroy all assurance and conviction. These arguments might be displayed at greater length, if any durable good or benefit to society could ever be expected to result from them. 128.
For here is the chief and most confounding objection to excessive scepticism, that no durable good can ever result from it; while it remains in its full force and vigour. We need only ask such a sceptic, What his meaning is? And what he proposes by all these curious researches?
He is immediately at a loss, and knows not what to answer. A Copernican or Ptolemaic, who supports each his different system of astronomy, may hope to produce a conviction, which will remain constant and durable, with his audience.
A Stoic or Epicurean displays non-durable principles, which might have an effect on behaviour.
But a Pyrrhonian cannot expect his philosophy to have any constant influence on the mind or for it to have a beneficial influence to society.
On the contrary, he must acknowledge, if he will acknowledge anything, that all human life must perish, were his principles universally and steadily to prevail.
All discourse, all action would immediately cease; and men remain in a total lethargy, till the necessities of nature, unsatisfied, put an end to their miserable existence. It is true; so fatal an event is very little to be dreaded. Nature is always too strong for principle.
A Pyrrhonian might throw himself or others into a momentary confusion by his profound reasonings. But the first and most trivial event in life will put to flight all his doubts and scruples, and leave him the same, in every point of action and speculation, with the philosophers of every other sect, or with those who never concerned themselves in any philosophical researches.
When he awakes from his dream, he will be the first to join in the laugh against himself, and to confess, that all his objections are mere amusement, and can have no other tendency than to show the whimsical condition of mankind, who must act and reason and believe; though they are not able, by their most diligent enquiry, to satisfy themselves concerning the foundation of these operations, or to remove the objections, which may be raised against them.
Common sense mild sceptisim is alright but an extreme one is wrong.
- A mitigated scepticism is both durable and useful
It happens when this Pyrrhonism, or excessive scepticism, is corrected by common sense and reflection. Most people naturally are affirmative and dogmatical in their opinions.
While they see objects only on one side, and have no idea of any counterpoising argument. They throw themselves precipitately into the principles, to which they are inclined. They do not have any indulgence for those who entertain opposite sentiments. To hesitate or balance perplexes their understanding, checks their feeling, and suspends their action.
They are, therefore, impatient till they escape from a state, which to them is so uneasy. They think that can never escape it by the violence of their affirmations and obstinacy of their belief. If dogmatic people could be sensible of the strange infirmities of human understanding, their reflection would naturally be more modest. It would reduce their fond opinion of themselves, and their prejudice against antagonists. The illiterate may reflect on the disposition of the learned, who, amidst all the advantages of study and reflection, are still diffident in their determinations.
If any of the learned become haughty, a small tincture of excessive scepticism might abate their pride. It would show them that their few advantages over their fellows are but inconsiderable compared with the universal perplexity and confusion, which is inherent in human nature. In general, there is a degree of doubt, caution, and modesty should forever accompany a just reasoner. !!limit subjects. 130. The limitation of our enquiries to subjects that are best adapted to the narrow capacity of human understanding can be advantageous to mankind.
It is the natural result of the Pyrrhonian doubts and scruples. The imagination of man is naturally sublime
It is delighted with whatever is remote and extraordinary, and running, without control, into the most distant parts of space and time in order to avoid the objects, which custom has rendered too familiar to it. A correct Judgement observes a contrary method, and avoiding all distant and high enquiries, confines itself to common life, and to such subjects as fall under daily practice and experience leaving the more sublime topics to the embellishment of poets and orators, or to the arts of priests and politicians. Only the strong power of natural instinct could free us from extreme scepticism. Philosophers reflect, that, philosophical decisions are nothing but the reflections of common life, methodized and corrected. But they will never be tempted to go beyond common life, so long as they consider the imperfection of those faculties which they employ, their narrow reach, and their inaccurate operations. We cannot give a satisfactory reason why we believe that a stone will fall or fire burn after a thousand experiments.
Can we ever determine the origin of worlds, situation of nature, from, and to eternity? This narrow limitation of our enquiries is so reasonable. It is recommend to us. It suffices to make the slightest examination into the natural powers of the human mind and to compare them with their objects. We shall then find what are the proper subjects of science and enquiry. !!quantity 131. The only objects of the abstract science or of demonstration are quantity and number.
All attempts to extend this more perfect species of knowledge beyond these bounds are mere sophistry and illusion. The component parts of quantity and number are entirely similar. Their relations become intricate and involved. Tracing the equality or inequality of quantity by a variety of mediums through their different appearances is most curious. All other ideas are clearly distinct and different from each other.
Even with our utmost scrutiny, we can never advance farther than to observe this diversity and say one thing is not to be another. Any difficulty in these decisions comes entirely from the undeterminate meaning of words, which is corrected by juster definitions. The equality of the square of the hypothenuse to the squares of the other two sides cannot be known without a train of reasoning and enquiry to exactly define the terms.
The truth of the proposition “that where there is no property there can be no injustice” can be known by defining justice and property and explaining that injustice is a violation of property. This proposition is just a more imperfect definition. It is the same case with all those pretended syllogistical reasonings, which may be found in every other branch of learning, except the sciences of quantity and number. Those sciences are the only proper objects of knowledge and demonstration. 132. All other enquiries of men regard only matter of fact and existence.
These are incapable of demonstration. Whatever is may not be. No negation of a fact can involve a contradiction. The non-existence of any being is a clear and distinct idea just as the idea of its existence.
The proposition that says a thing does not exist is as conceivable as a proposition that it exists. The case is different with the sciences. Every false proposition is confused and unintelligible in science. It is false to say that the cube root of 64 is equal to 5. It can never be distinctly conceived. But the existence of Caesar, or the angel Gabriel, might be false, But it is still perfectly conceivable, and implies no contradiction. The existence, therefore, of any being can only be proved by arguments from its cause or its effect.
These arguments are founded entirely on experience. If we reason a priori, anything may appear able to produce anything. The falling of a pebble may, for aught we know, extinguish the sun; or the wish of a man control the planets in their orbits.
It is only experience, which teaches us the nature and bounds of cause and effect, and enables us to infer the existence of one object from that of another
Such is the foundation of moral reasoning, which forms the greater part of human knowledge, and is the source of all human action and behaviour. Moral reasonings are either concerning particular or general facts. All deliberations in life regard the former; as also all disquisitions in history, chronology, geography, and astronomy. The sciences, which treat of general facts, are politics, natural philosophy, physic, chemistry, &c. where the qualities, causes and effects of a whole species of objects are enquired into. Divinity or Theology, as it proves the existence of a Deity, and the immortality of souls, is composed partly of reasonings concerning particular, partly concerning general facts.
It has a foundation in reason, so far as it is supported by experience. But its best and most solid foundation is faith and divine revelation. Morals and criticism are not so properly objects of the understanding as of taste and sentiment. Moral and natural beauty is felt, more properly than perceived.
If we reason about it, and try to fix the standard of beauty, we regard a new fact as the general tastes of mankind, or some such fact that can be the object of reasoning and enquiry. When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make?
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Burn them for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. No. Commit it then to the flames: If you actually read the whole section 12, you will realize that it’s about atheism vs theism.